Embracing Angels

This sermon was preached at my church in DC, which sits at the feet of Washington power-brokers, and takes seriously the task of offering a prophetic response to political issues.  Every year in early August our church commemorates Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembrance Day, which was the day on which this sermon was preached.  As always, the story of Sadako was printed in the order of service on this day.  Sadako was a victim of the bombs who died slowly of leukemia.  As she died she folded hundreds of paper cranes, which Japanese legend says grants the folder a wish.  At the Hiroshima Remembrance Museum, there is a statue of Sadako with a paper crane, and underneath it says: This is our cry.  This is our prayer. Peace in the world.

August 3, 2008
Hiroshima Remembrance Day

Genesis 32:22-31

Friends, please pray with me:

God, sometimes the white noise of violence in our world is so loud, that I can barely make out your Word above it.  Please bless this attempt to strike at your infinite Truth, and kiss these imperfect words with your grace so that they might be perfected in the hearts of this your beloved community.


(John Marsh singing from balcony – baritone voice, melancholic:) Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody knows my sorrow, Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody knows but God

Jacob was a cheater.  He was a lying, cheating, opportunistic, conman.  And it was about to catch up with him.  He had been told that Esau’s army of hundreds was approaching, operating according to a revenge plan that Esau, the brother whom Jacob had conned and then had to flee from under threat of murder, surely had been concocting for the past twenty years.  As Jacob squinted his eyes into the horizon, he convinced himself he could just see thin curls of smoke slithering up toward the rising moon from an army camp’s fire.  In moments, fleeting, he was sure the light wind carried the sounds of men sharpening their knives beside those campfires.  The sound of stone sliding along knife blade, he swore he just heard it.

Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody knows my sorrow, Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody knows but God

This is not the way it was supposed to go.  God had promised, promised, a happier ending to this journey.  And surely Jacob had suffered enough these past years of indentured servitude to a man even more cunning than himself, his uncle Laban.  Night fell as Jacob paced nervously, darkness slipping into and filling the corners of the earth around him.  He descended down to the edge of the river Jabbok and began his vigil to morning, watching the light of the moon jump across the river’s rippled currents, awaiting daybreak’s confrontation with Esau and his armies with their stone-sharpened knives.

Nobody knows the trouble I seen, Nobody knows…

But a mysterious man came instead of the morning.  And even the cicadas were silenced, holding their breath as the man passed by them and went to Jacob, embracing him into a violent struggle.  Jacob didn’t know the nature of whom he was wrestling – Maybe it was Esau, too impatient to wait for the morning to exact his vengeance. Maybe Laban, who had discovered how Jacob had cheated him of the best sheep from his flock.  Maybe this encounter was just another dream, or a another nightmare, like that ladder descending from heaven. Jacob didn’t understand, and yet still he wrestled, as the moon arced its way across the sky.


On Friday night I had dinner with a few friends from church, and someone asked me what text I would be preaching on today. I told them it was the story of Jacob wrestling at the river Jabbok.  “Oh, you mean when Jacob wrestles with the demon?’ Peg asked.  “Demon? Interesting you remember it that way,” I replied.  The text itself is vague, as our text often, frustratingly, is – not neatly interpreting itself for us, but calling us in to wrestle with it to uncover its meaning.  The figure in the night is described as man, but also, obliquely, as a stand in for God.   At some point in my young life, I was taught the figure was an angel.  Peg has come to interpret it as a demon.  And the text itself hardly clarifies which interpretation is correct.

But maybe, in fact, we’re both right.  Maybe my Sunday School taught, Rembrandt-influenced image of the figure as an angel, its wings stretching out behind it as it embraced Jacob, and Peg’s recollection of the figure as demon attacking upon Jacob in the dead of the night, both get at the truth of who Jacob encountered beside the river.  Certainly in preparing to face up to Esau, Jacob was forced to confront his own painful past, his acts of violence against others, his propensity to lie and cheat – his inner demons.  But in this wrestling with these bitter memories and with his conscience and fears, maybe Jacob was fully recognizing and taking account of what he had done to Esau and others, things hurtful to mortals and to God, and this was leading him to embrace his inner angels.  Perhaps Jacob was wrestling with both demon and angel that night, and that is what brought him face-to-face with God.

I have another image from childhood that has been with me this week.  Not angels, but shadows.  As many of you remember, when the bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some of the people near the epicenter left only a shadow behind.  Their body vaporized in the heat, and the shape of their body left imprinted on the sidewalk, the building, or the bridge, an image of darkness surrounded by brighter cement that was bleached from the bombs’ thousand degree heat and blinding white light.  The photo in my eighth grade history textbook was of a woman sitting on the stoop in front of the bank at 8:15 in the morning, waiting for it to open.  Just the shadow of her body left as testament to her vigil.

This image seared itself into my young conscience and has haunted me ever since.  It represented the awesome power of the bomb, its horrifying magical powers to obliterate, to freeze-frame a human life into a mere shadow.  And of course the image haunts me along with all the other tragic images of evil wrought during those dark ages: from the camps, those living skeletons of Jews and gays and dissidents, their dark eyes peering into the voyeuristic camera lens.  Or the image of kamikaze pilots spiraling down to the earth, twirls of engine smoke snaking, giving birth to modern suicide bombing.

But today we are called to wrestle with the bombs, to remember the innocent victims of those bombs, and young Sadako in particular.  And to seek forgiveness from God for the suffering and death brought by Little Boy and Fat Man.  Though they may have ended a terrible and dark war, that does not mean we should fail to wrestle with the manner in which they were an affront to the sanctity of life, an act of terror against mortals and God.   Nor can we fail to wrestle with the manner in which they led to a Cold War, and all its proxy wars throughout the world and into the present.  That is what bombs and violence do – they create shock waves across space and then across time, creating new forms of violence in their wake.

Most of you probably know what comes next in Genesis.  Jacob sets off towards Esau a man humbled, no longer cocky and surefooted, but limping and bowing.  And when he came face to face with the brother he had wronged years earlier, Esau embraced him in love and compassion, and they both wept.  And when Jacob said that to look into Esau’s face was to look into the face of God, he said this knowingly, having seen the face of God that very morning as he had faced his demons.  So it was the same face here, an angel.  Confronting demons, so that he might come to embrace angels, both, after all, bringing Jacob to see God manifest in his world, and in his life.

I pray that it may be so for our nation.  Though it may pain us to wrestle with our national demons, to witness to the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on those first weeks of August in 1945: shadows and burn victims, black rain.  Though it may offend some, it may just be the manner in which we will truly come to embrace our own better angels, and to bring peace when the day breaks.  It may be the manner in which to bring the humility that inaugurates true reconciliation with our global family.  And the repentance that resolves us to act for peace, inspired by the face of God we have glimpsed in our wrestling.

Despite the sorrow and trouble our world has seen, some of it by our hands, God never gives up on our ability to embrace angels and walk forward into a new day.  So let us resolve, like Sadako, not to give up hope as we confront death and violence, subservient to a false sense of its inevitability.  Instead, let us come to embrace our angels, proliferating folded cranes of peace and healing rather than bombs, and giving them flight so that they might settle into the streets of urban centers, and the valleys of humanity, illuminating the fullness of life teeming there.


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